As Wimbledon kicks off, high on expectation as ever, the women’s game is a puzzle no one can solve right now while the men are at the cross roads.
At the start of 2016, I suggested the year would turn out to be a battle between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the two younger members of the astonishing Top4 that have ruled the game for more than a decade.
That proved to be correct but not quite in the way I expected. Djokovic totally dominated the first half of the year, achieved his main ambition of winning the French Open and faded fast. Murray, lifted by a big clay court title in Rome, took charge of the second half, winning just about everything that mattered apart from the US Open and rose to No 1.
And now look what has happened in 2017. The year so far, has also been divided but this time into quarters. Surprising no one more than himself after six months out of the game through injury, Roger Federer fought back from a break down in the fifth to beat Rafa Nadal in the final of the Australian Open and then went on to win the first ATP Masters 1000 Series in Indian Wells and Miami.
Listening to his body, Federer took the clay court season off and Nadal took over. Since then everything of top importance has been won by the Spaniard who, at Roland Garros, may have been playing the best tennis of his career. Experts like Paul Annacone were suggesting the same thing of Federer after he won Indian Wells.
So now what? Uniquely among the four Grand Slams ONLY the Top4 have the title at Wimbledon, not just in the last decade but, unbelievably, for 14 years, ever since Federer won his first title in 2003. If that run is to be continue, logic would suggest that it would be either Djokovic or Murray, the ‘young ones’, who claim the title.
But logic has a tenuous relationship with professional sport. Murray, the defending champion, suffered a shock first round loss to Australia’s Jordan Thompson in the first round at Queen’s - a tournament he has won five times - and has been worried by a hip problem since while Djokovic, despite looking good while winning the title at Eastbourne, still seems to be wavering mentally in comparison to the sharp-focused athlete we came to know during his years at No 1.
So, it is the older pair who go into the Championships as more likely winners. Federer arrived in London having won Halle for the ninth time and is obviously fresh and confident. Nadal, who was dissuaded from playing Queen’s, which he badly wanted to do, spent the week practicing on the fine grass courts they now have in Mallorca and is obviously thrilled with the way he feels physically. On the Saturday before the tournament, he spent two hours on court at Wimbledon and one hour in the gymn and then bounded into press conference with a happy smile on his face.
Nadal’s forehand, which lost its potency a couple of years ago, seems as devastating now as it ever was and, if Federer maintains the mindset he revealed in press conference this weekend, the pair could meet in another historic final.
Federer was as lucid as ever when asked what he had been focusing on. “Just making sure I come in fresh with the right mindset,” he replied. “Look, I don’t want to be at the mercy of my opponent. I want to take charge, play aggressive myself. So, for that I need to be fast on my feet and quick in my mind. I just need enough rest so I can play enough inspired tennis.”
The most amazing thing is that there is no sign of Federer being any less fast with his feet or less quick in his mind than when he beat Mark Philippoussis in the 2003 final.
Federer, however, is not complacent. While admitting that it was surprising that the Top4 had kept a lock on the Wimbledon title for so long, he added, “But it can change tomorrow, very quickly.”
Who could change it? When asked who, among the younger brigade, he viewed as a threat, Federer said, “I think Sascha Zverev and Nick Kyrgios have shown what they can do, how good they can be.”
The German and the Australian are in opposite sides of the draw so could the rule of the Top4 be smashed to smithereens with a Zverev - Kyrgios final? That, one would think, would be taking Roger’s warning about change a little too far. But mark it down as one for the future. Things will change but not that fast. When pushed, Federer still starts talking about his career-long rivals.
“Everyone has their own little story right now. If he’s anything close to 100% fit, I consider Andy one of the big favorites to win the tournament. Novak is just coming back from winning Eastbourne. Rafa is coming in red hot from the clay. They are all going to be tough to beat here.”
So what is the next turn in the road? A continuation of dominance by Nadal, who has proved himself on grass with two Wimbledon titles or will Federer resume where he left off in Miami? Or can Murray or Djokovic, under achievers by their standards so far in 2017, take their games back to 2016? The sign posts are up and clearly marked. The direction less so.
Which names point in which direction in the women’s game? That’s a head scratcher. Karolina Pliskova might be considered favorite after beating Caroline Wozniacki in the Eastbourne final. Having been a finalist at Devonshire Park last year as well as winning on grass in Nottingham, the tall Czech obviously has a liking for the surface and may have generated enough confidence to believe that Wimbledon is in her stars.
Two players appear to pose the biggest threat - one proven and one not. Everyone has been happy to see Petra Kvitova back on court and winning, as she did in Birmingham, so quickly after her horrendous hand injury and, having won Wimbledon in 2011 and 2014, she knows exactly what it takes.
And, paradoxically, she may find the effort required less stressful. As Petra said in press conference, she sees life from a different angle since the intruder attacked her in her kitchen in Prague. “I think that before I was very nervous before every match,” she admitted. “Now I see that I shouldn’t be. There’s more important things in life than just tennis.”
So it would be hard not include Kvitova as one of the favorites although she insists it surprises her to be considered that way. So we have two Czechs as potential champions and, geographically, one does not have to travel very far to find the other.
A chirpy 20-year-old sprang out of Latvia to stun the tennis world at Roland Garros and it’s no wonder that Jelena Ostapenko still has a smile on her face. There was a red carpet waiting for her at Riga Airport when she flew home. “So many people came to meet me, so many flowers, so many posters. It was amazing.”
She said she knew she could win a Grand Slam one day, “but I didn’t think it was going to happen so soon.”
Ostapenko won’t admit to believing she is ready to win Wimbledon either but anyone who goes for her shots and blasts them with such power is surely in with a chance, especially as grass has already become a favorite surface for her after winning the junior title here two years ago.
With Serena Williams expecting; Maria Sharapova recovering from injury and the British hope Johanna Konta also struggling physically after a nasty fall in the Eastbourne semi-final, anything is possible as last year’s finalist Angelique Kerber admits. “There are so many good players right now so I am not putting the pressure on my side. They can play, they can win. We will see.”